Louise Derman-Sparks

LOUISE DERMAN SPARKS

OK. I’m Louise Derman-Sparks. I’m uh on the Human Development faculty of Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena, California and I’m the co-director of the Early Childhood Equity Alliance.

OK. Common misperceptions about diversity in earlier childhood. (Interruption) Right. OK. Yeah. OK. Well, I think there—there are several misconceptions about diversity issues in the early childhood field among early childhood educators. I think the most important misconception is that children are colorblind. And by that people usually mean that children don’t notice differences of skin color or of hair texture or of language or disabilities or gender. And therefore they’re reluctant to talk about differences because they think that if they don’t talk about them, children won’t notice and if they don’t notice then they won’t become prejudice. And—so that’s a second misperception that noticing differences causes prejudice. And both of those beliefs, the color—the children are colorblind or that if talking about differences leads to prejudice, really are not true. There’s a great deal of research about children’s development of identity and attitudes that contradicts those to misconceptions. I think another misconception is teachers’ beliefs that they don’t notice differences, that they’re colorblind. And it commonly comes in the phrase of “I don’t know if my children are black, or brown, or green, or purple.” And somehow the—the colors that don’t exist among human beings get added to the list. I think the intention of that—underneath that misconception is a positive one in that people are trying to express that children are all children. That we share common humanity, common abilities no matter what our skin color or culture is. And that’s true. On the other hand, we are not all the same and our differences, whether they’re cultural differences or gender differences or skin color differences or disabilities or family structure differences, do affect how we are socialized and they also affect how the larger society treats us and views us and our families. So a colorblind position by a teacher leads to outcomes that are actually oppressive to children because we don’t pay attention to who—to the context in which they are growing.

In anti-bias curriculum for children is based on what we know about how children develop identity and attitudes. And it has four basic goals. The first goal is to help children to develop a knowledgeable, confident self-identity and group identity. And group identity refers to the categories of identity, our gender, our—our cultural background, our race, our class, and so on. The second goal is to help children develop comfortable, empathetic—empathetic understanding of people who are different from themselves. And this means understanding both our similarities and our differences. See empathy is based on our similarities. Understanding of differences and comfort with differences is understanding that we act our dif—our similarities in different ways. The third goal is to help children develop critical thinking about bias. And even with the young children at four and five, children are able to begin to learn to resist misinformation or incorrect images. For example, the stereotype of Native Americans is—well, Native Americans with that issue of bows and arrows. Well, that girls can only do certain things and boys can do certain things. Four and five year olds actually have a great deal of ability to begin to realize that these are not fair ideas. And the fourth goal is to teach children skills to resist on fairness and to resist if someone treats you unfairly because of your—some aspect of your identity or to—to re—to interrupt unfairness when you see a child treating another child unfairly. That’s the package. And we believe all four goals are necessary to create environments that really nurture all children. What does it look like in practice? In practice it—it basically means using all the—the techniques and activities that we already use in early childhood. There aren’t any new special techniques. It does mean, however, that we apply what we know to new content and that means making sure that the materials that we use, the environment, all—reflect all the children in the program, all the staff in the program, brings in additional adversity to reflect the diversity in the community. It means that we pay attention to teachable moments when children ask questions or make comments about differences or about themselves. We don’t ignore them. We use them as a way to—to develop children’s understanding. And that means that we try and figure out what children are really asking and talking about. And so we openly talk about anti-bias content, about gender—or stereotypes about gender, race—and stereotypes about race, family structure and stereotypes, or homophobic stereotypes and so you can, you know, you can’t have two mommies or you can’t have two daddies. We answer children’s questions about disabilities. If—if you’re in the park and a child points to someone and says, “Why is that person in a wheelchair?” We don’t say, “Shh-shh, it’s not OK.” We—we address whatever the child is really interested um in. It’s also a classroom where we involve families in a very ongoing dynamic way. Not just to come and talk about special ceremonies or rituals, but we want to bring in a family’s daily life into the program so that we build curriculum in collaboration with the real-life daily experiences of children. It’s also a classroom where teachers intentionally bring up issues of diversity and bring up issues of unfairness. And the—the one technique that we’ve adapted that may be a little bit different then what people have done in the past, is to use dolls to tell stories and to do problem solving about issues of diversity or of bias that appear in the classroom. Now it’s based on a tradition of story telling and using puppets and dolls, which has a long, noble history in early childhood. The—we call them persona dolls and—and these are dolls that the teachers use for themselves and—and choose dolls that reflect children in the classroom and bring diversity into the classroom. The teacher gives the dolls a name, an ethnic background, a family background, and uses the dolls throughout the year to tell stories. And in this way you can bring in a lot of issues, very intentional issues that you’ve heard come up from the children, issues in the community. If you’ve heard, you know, one child say to another, “Oh, you know, you—you can’t play here because your skin is black.” We—we need to deal with in the moment as a teachable moment, but you can also use the dolls for—to develop children’s understanding of why this is hurtful, what you can do if you see a—this happening. Or you—if you—you may not have any deaf children in the program but you want children to explore what that means for death children. You have a doll that—that is deaf or hearing impaired and talk with the children about how we’re going to help her understand where things are in the classroom. If we have a fire drill, how is she going to know we have a fire drill because she won’t be able to hear the sound? Those kinds of things. So um it really means that on a daily basis we use the lens of the four goals of anti-bias work and both intentionally bring up issues and create an environment in which children bring up the issues. And then when they do bring up the issues, we pay attention to them.

Well, the causes of empowerment have been used a great deal in the last 10 years and I don’t think we empower people. I think we provide the opportunity for children or adults to become empowered. I think this is something we do for ourselves but we have to have the opportunity to feel empowered. And empowerment really means feeling component. It means feeling heard. It means having a voice. It means being included in decision-making. It means being able to make choices about what you want to do and developing the competencies to do them. So the way that children become empowered in a program is very much related for me to the—the four anti-bias goals. And that children’s real life has to be present in the environment. We can talk all we want about how we think the children are so important and do self-esteem activities, but if children are not seeing what they look like, what they speak, what their family looks like, what their family does, what their family cares about in the environment—self-esteem activities that we pick out of a hat of some curriculum book don’t do very much for children. It does not enable children to feel that they have a voice, that they’re visible, that they’re important. Using children’s home language is a very critical piece of providing the conditions for empowerment because three and four year olds and younger are just learning their home language. If they come to school, which is often their first experience outside the family or the extended family, so it represents society, and if so—the school does not reflect their home language, children very quickly pick up that their language is not important or is less important then English and they actually stop using their language which disempowers them in their family. They’re not able to communicate with their parents or they may communicate with their parents and not able to communicate with their grandparents. Uh, creating conditions for empowerment means bringing a kind of democratic classroom where children participate in making the rules and making decisions about what happens in their classroom. And even four year olds, five year olds can begin to participate in making um rules and agreements about how the group is going to act. Um, empowerment also happens when children work together collaboratively and make something happen. So how do you know it’s happening? Um, well children are engaged in activities and their engaged in many different ways according to their learning styles. Children are um—become involved in group discussions. Children begin to feel a sense of connection to other children in the class. They take responsibility for each other. They—I mean, we’ve—we’ve collected many stories where children will intervene and say, “You know, that’s not fair” to another child. Um, or you hear children engaging in discussions. There’s this uh one of my favorite stories of three boys were playing Winnie The Pooh with small animals in a sand pile and a girl—one of the girls in the class came along and said she wanted to play to and they said, “No, but there are no girls in Winnie The Pooh. You could be somebody else but you’d have to pretend to be a boy.” And she says, “No, I don’t want to be a boy, I want to be a girl.” And eventually they resolved and they decide that they’ll give Tigger a sister and so she can be Tigger. But it’s really only pretend. But you see this whole process of children really thinking through a problem, children standing up for themselves, children listening to each other’s needs and coming to a solution. And I think that to me is—is the core of what empowerment is about.

What does anti-bias work mean in mainly European American or all European American or white classroom and for white teachers. This is a very important issue. It’s one that I often get asked and usually in the form of, “Well, I only have white children in my classroom so do I need to do it or how do I do it?” Um, yeah uh so my basic response is that all children need a classroom that works with the four anti-bias goals. And white children learn about people who are not white even though they don’t have contact with them. And this was something that Dr. Kenneth Clorock who did some of the very early research on African American children’s identity that was used in the 1954 Supreme Court decision, the desegregation decision. Made very clear that children learn their attitudes from the socially prevailing ideas about different groups not from contact with people who are different. And all children—all white children in this society, in this country have contact with the socially prevailing beliefs about different racial groups, ethnic groups, language groups, disabilities, people who are gay and lesbian, poor people, rich people, you name it. People who are old, people who are heavy. The beliefs or negative beliefs or stereotypes about all these groups are very pervasive and they come to children through television, through movies, books, through lunch boxes, through the pictures on their hats, pictures on their t-shirts. They also come to children by what they don’t see around them as well as what they do see in terms of what they judge is important. So all children need—so white children need activities that enables the teacher to find out how they are thinking about other groups. This is where it needs to start, from our understanding of what a particular group of children know and then activities that counter their ideas. So, you know, for instance, many children—all children in this country are exposed to misinformation and stereotypes about Native Americans. It happens every November. We have a unit on misconceptions about Native Americans. Whether you ask four year olds in any part of the country, you know white four year olds or any other group of four year olds what they know about Indians, they’ll tell you all these stereotypes. So that would be one example. There are—many, many kids have all kinds of ideas about what girls can do, what boys can do. Kids have ideas about people in disa—people with disabilities and what they can and can’t do. So white children have all this. So the second thing that white children is they have an identity too. I mean those of us who are white have a racial identity and we have an ethnic identity, cultural identity. We may not think we do because many of us have lost touch with the roots of our families or people talk about the being---you know, their Heinz 27, whatever. They’re a blend of many different groups. But we still have culture. Our families, the families that we grew up in had rules about the way the world works and had values about the way the world works and they—we just experience them. So white children are experiencing culture in their homes and they need to know about themselves. Um, there are also many differences among whites. I mean of the differences even—even among the same ethnic group there are differences in the way people act out their specific cultures. Plus there are differences of gender, differences in disability, differences in family structure, differences and so on. So white children need anti-bias work just as much as children of color and you can do a good anti-bias in a program that’s all white as well as in a program that’s all African American or all Mexican American. You just have to tailor what you do to the particular group that you have. In some groups—in an all white group, there’s some things you can do and there’s some things you can’t do very easily. You may have to bring in ethnic diversity through the use of persona dolls and books. But before you do that, it’s very important to establish the idea that differences are OK among the children that you already have. It isn’t just other people who are different. White people are different from each other as well. And then you can build and bring in other diversities. If you have a mixed group, then you have the diversity right there in the classroom. So you approach it a little bit differently. But everyone can use an anti-bias approach. (Interruption) Heinz 57. Heinz 57. Oh, 57.

Well, parents’ role in all of this is critical because we’re talking about anti-bias work with children starting at two years old, three years old, four years old, five years old. And unless we can partner with parents on these issues, it may be a very temporary experience for children. But to make that happen it—it’s very important that early childhood teachers are able to talk with parents about issues of identity—about their own identity, who they are, whom they—whom they want their children to be, what aspects of their identity are important for them for their children to know. It’s important for parents to look at how they learned about who they are, how they experienced being different or other people who were different. So a lot of it has to be story telling from the parents about their own growing up and their own experiences. Another level is—is finding out from parents what’s—as I said, what’s important to them. And then really collaborating with parents in figuring out ways that work for individual families. Because there isn’t a one-size fits all way for parents to support identity development or the development of acceptance of diversity. (Cough) (Interruption) Let’s see, um (Interruption) Right. It’s—it’s—because each par—each family has to figure out for themselves what they want to do about identity issues and diversity issues. And—and so teachers have to really be sensitive to the context of each family. What many teachers who—who use anti-bias approaches fear are parents who are going to disagree with anti-bias approach, who are teaching their children prejudice, who don’t want their children to learn about diversity. And that’s a tricky one because uh we—if we say we’re going to partner with parents, we don’t want to tell children that what their parents are saying are wrong. On the other hand, some of the things that the parents may want have happen in the preschool program we would consider wrong. So a parent says, “I don’t want my child playing with a black doll” or “I don’t want my child—I don’t want you to have any books whatsoever, you know, anywhere near the vicinity of two mommies or two dad families.” And you believe as a preschool teacher that it’s important children experience the diversity and come to feel comfortable with it. Then negotiation has to happen and discussion has to happen, you know, to try to find out what the fears are on a parents part. But what do you think will happen if your child plays with a black doll, which is a real incident where parents told a teacher. Um, or what’s your fears if we have a book about two mommies or two daddies, you know, and what do you think we’re teaching them when we read a book like that. And often through those kinds of one-on-one conversations many parents will come to feel more comfortable with what we’re doing. Sometimes you just have to agree to disagree and say that you—you get—you teach what you believe but in this program we are going to support diversity and your child will hear two different versions and they will eventually have to decide which version they want. And so um—and some parents may feel uncomfortable with that and say this is not an appropriate program for their child. Well on the other side, we also have to be sensitive to the different cultural values and this often comes up around gender issues. Um, and—where a family may think it’s very important to send their—their daughter to school in a dress or they don’t want their boy playing in doll corner. And this comes out of strong cultural values. And if they do allow their children to do this, they will be seen as bad parents. And so then I think we have to negotiate. We have to figure out what to do. Well—well, if a child—if a girl comes to school in a dress, she may not be able to do certain activities. So do—is it—do they mean that they don’t want their child doing those activities or they just need them looking good when they leave home and when they come back home. Um, so maybe they can have uh some pants at school or the school provides it and they use those for certain activities. Um, for boys maybe they don’t want to be in the doll corner, but since we would like to encourage boys becoming nurturing, maybe there are other ways that they participate in nurturing. So they can play being doctor or other ways that that happens. So there—there’s ways of negotiating issues around family values for what they believe should happen for their child. And—and sometimes your bottom line we have to say we can’t do some things because that would be oppressive to other children in the classroom. But it—it means having to have trust with parents. If a preschool program does not already have a good relationship with parents, they need to develop that before they begin to do anti-bias work with them and that’s the bottom line.

Yes, actually. (Interruption) Well, one thing I think is very important in—in dev—in using anti-bias approach is understanding that the goals have to be made concrete in relationship to the needs and—of a particular group of children and a particular community. So it shouldn’t look the same in every program. The principles are the same; I think the goals are the same, but the activities that you use, the materials that you use, the issues that you focus on will look different in different communities. And that comes out of your understanding of the needs of the children, of the family—of negotiating with families, and with negotiating with staff. I think that’s one piece. A lot of—of anti-bias work is like dramatic play with kids, you know, where they spend a lot of time arguing about who’s going to be the mommy, or the daddy, or the fireperson, or whatever. And the actual play may only be a small part of the time that they have. Well, I’ve come to think of anti-bias work in the same way. That there has to be a lot of discussion and conversation among staff, between staff and parents, among parents to make it worthwhile. And that’s also partedly providing conditions for empowerment of the adults to make these ideas their own. I think another issue that is really important is that teachers can’t do this work by themselves. It is ongoing work. It takes a lot of looking at oneself and coming to understand one—one’s own cultural identity, one’s own area of discomfort, one’s own biases, one’s own bottom lines. It may mean changing practices that you’ve done for awhile. It may mean having to change materials. It probably will mean that you have to change materials or practices. And it’s very important to have other people to be doing this work with. And it may be people—if you’re lucky, it’s people in your own program where a—a director really is supporting teachers working together on these issues. It may—but you may not be able to find someone in your own program who’s interested in this work so it may mean finding other people in your community through your local a—through your local Association for the Education of Young Children group, through Head Start Associations, through church-based networks, through the Ecumenical Childcare Network that works on anti-bias issues. There are a lot of ways of finding support. There are a lot of ways of finding support. But it is really important to at least have one other person that you can bounce ideas off. And ideally you have this support group of, you know, five, six, seven, eight people who meet regularly. Some people meet every two weeks and every month. The people who make a commitment to each other to figure out what it means to use an anti-bias approach in their particular program.